I have a shelf full of books on writing I’ve collected over the years. Many of them were purchased in order to help me improve my teaching, to offer to my students insights on narrative craft beyond my own. Others, I bought for inspiration, when stuck in the mire of my own writing. Every now and then, a book comes along that changes the conversation, or at the very least deepens and expands it. One such book is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, with which you are probably familiar. When I was just starting out as a writer, Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird spoke to me, as it spoke to so many others who were desperate to fashion some kind of writing life. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, serves as a primer if you are new to the craft and as a kick in the pants if you’ve been doing it for a while. There are so many others, and over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.
In 1998, Ursula LeGuin added her substantial voice to the canon with Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Writer or the Mutinous Crew. Many books about writing, oddly enough, are written by people who never had much success as writers. So it’s always exciting to find a book on craft by a writer you never imaged would write a book on craft–because that person is so busy being an actual writer, publishing books and being generally awesome in the world of literature. Steering the Craft was first published in 1998 with the mouthful of a subtitle , but an updated version, subtitled A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, was released in 2013.
In the introduction to the new edition, LeGuin, whose work has always existed on the edge of the known world, explains:
I wanted my book to reflect the risks and chances of sailing the stormy waters of publishing–print and electronic–in this day and age, while never losing sight of the pole stars of the art of storytelling: how prose works and how a story moves.
LeGuin forgoes the typical craft breakdown (characterization, dialogue, plot, etc) and focuses on these aspects of storytelling:
- the sound of language
- punctuation, syntax, the narrative sentence and paragraph
- rhythm and repetition
- adjectives and adverbs
- tense and person of the verb
- voice and point of view
- implicit narration
- crowding, leaping, focus, and control
Evident here is LeGuin’s deep admiration for the sentence, her absolute certainty that every great story relies upon the language the writer chooses to convey meaning and mood.
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right?
So begins LeGuin’s beautiful foray into story, a book that will remind you of the finer aspects of voice and narrative vision. Steering the Craft is packed with excerpts and related exercises. It’s short and powerful. If you’re looking for a book to begin your education on writing, or if you just need inspiration, this is a great place to start.